The rise and fall of the “lay apostolate”

In my last post, I showed that contrary to what is often assumed, Vatican II referred more often to the concept of “apostolate” than “ministry.” In fact, the term “apostolate” appears 205 times in the English versions (NB: the ENGLISH versions, a point we’ll return to in a future post) of the Council documents as against 160 times for the word “ministry.”

Moreover, the Council explicitly uses the term “lay apostolate” 19 times and does not use the term “lay ministry” at all (although it is implied).

Importantly and intriguingly, in the conciliar documents, the word “apostolate” mostly relates to the lay apostolate, with the term appearing 122 times in Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Lay Apostolate (and NOT the Decree on the Laity as it is often misleadingly called).

Historically, this is very significant since prior to the Council the term “lay apostolate” was often regarded as an oxymoron or contradiction in terms. The reason was that the bishops were viewed as the only legitimate successors of Apostles, a doctrine expressed canonically in their roles of teaching, governing and sanctifying in Jesus’ name, which were roles that lay people could not share.

While Vatican II in no way denied or diminished this, it emphasised that in addition to the roles of bishops (and priests), ALL Christians by their very baptism and confirmation shared in Christ’s triple office of teaching, governing and sanctifying. Hence, lay people too had a legitimate (lay) apostolate of their own.

Now given the fact that Vatican II overwhelmingly endorsed the concept of “apostolate” in general and “lay apostolate” in particular, we might expect that since the Council, Church use of the terms “apostolate” and “lay apostolate” has taken off. Right?

Completely wrong, as it turns out. In fact, as illustrated by this Google Ngram, which measures the frequency of the use of words in scanned Google Books, the use of the terms “apostolate” and “lay apostolate” grew slowly from the early 19th century and in fact exploded around the time of Vatican II before declining dramatically from the end of the 1960s.

View the full graph here.

This raises several questions.

What caused the use of the terms “apostolate” and “lay apostolate” to increase from the beginning of the 19th century?

What caused it to peak so dramatically in the two decades leading up to Vatican II?

What caused it to decline so precipitously since the end of the 1960s, particularly in light of the Council’s endorsement of the terms?

We’ll try to answer these questions in a future blog post.

Stefan Gigacz


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